In one flashback early in the play, Vivian describes the moment she fell in love with words and language. She was sitting with her father, Mr. Bearing, and reading Beatrix Potter’s book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. She stumbles over the word “soporific,” and Mr. Bearing explains that it means “makes you sleepy.” Vivian is then delighted to see that in the book, the illustration accompanying the passage bears out the truth of this word—the picture shows bunnies asleep. “Because of soporific!” the young Vivian exclaims.
Then, towards the end of the play, E. M. Ashford, Vivian’s graduate school mentor, visits Vivian in the hospital, and she happens to bring along a children’s book—The Runaway Bunny—that she bought as a gift for her great-grandson. At first, E. M. offers to recite some Donne poems to Vivian, but Vivian (who is on morphine and barely coherent) refuses. Instead, E. M. reads from The Runaway Bunny, a simplistic story about a bunny who wants to run away from home.
The similarity of these two books (both of them children’s’ books about bunnies) and their appearance in crucial moments of Vivian’s life (during her first inspiring experience with language and accompanying her only visitor while she’s on her deathbed) links them as a symbol and highlights their importance in the play. They represent the childlike love of language that first set Vivian off on her literary life, and to which she finally returns just before her death. Though E. M. wants to recite Donne to the dying Vivian, and can’t resist offering a literary interpretation of The Runaway Bunny (“a little allegory of the soul”), Vivian no longer has the capacity or desire for lofty, complex language or intellectual puzzles. An important arc in the play is Vivian essentially “unlearning” her pride in her own intellect and sense of superiority in her expertise in language, so E. M.’s reading of the The Runaway Bunny symbolizes Vivian’s slow return to childlike simplicity, human connection, and an acceptance of the sometimes-clichéd realities of life. These two women are some of the foremost scholars of John Donne, but they find a last crucial connection in reading a children’s book about bunnies together.
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and The Runaway Bunny Quotes in Wit
VIVIAN: It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.
The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!
(She stands up, and MR. BEARING exits.)
The illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic.
So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me: ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation.
Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they…anatomize me. And I will grant that in this particular field of endeavor they possess a more potent arsenal of terminology than I. My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.